A Belgian beverage company Thursday made an unsolicited (meaning hostile) offer to buy Budweiser beer (the Anheuser-Busch Company of St. Louis, Mo.) for more than $6 billion. The same weak dollar and strong Euro currency that is making our European vacations prohibitively expensive make this the ideal time for European companies to buy American companies.
Budweiser is half the American beer market. The Busch family started the company 145 years ago. Before they became the all-American beer, they were like a public utility in the lower Midwest and Deep South because they owned the St. Louis Cardinals and sponsored their broadcasts. Their sponsorship of major national sports, and consistently smart advertising and marketing, made them the largest national beer as well. St. Louis’s second beer, Falstaff, is as forgotten as their baseball team, the St. Louis Browns, who became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
The idea that Bud might fall into foreign hands is fluttering feathers from the corner bar, to the Missouri Legislature, and possibly beyond. It’s less serious than the Chinese national oil company buying an American energy company, but as a matter of national pride, the two things are almost comparable.
Which reminds me of a story I witnessed in the ‘60s that illustrates the worst possible way to take over a beer company, or any popular consumer product.
Back in Baltimore where I grew up, we had a local beer named National Bohemian. It was the 12th largest beer in the country, even though it only sold in Maryland, Delaware and Washington DC. They sponsored the Orioles, Colts, Washington Redskins, and Washington Senators on TV and radio. Their advertising was totally based on their being brewed on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, which the commercials called “the land of pleasant living.” Their TV spokesperson was a sassy animated shore bird named Chester Peake, and their commercials were full of Bay lore, including a rhythmic recipe for Maryland fried chicken.
A Canadian beer company named Carling Black Label (whose TV slogan was “Mabel, Black Label”) bought National and took the label off the shelves. Carling’s sexist slogan did not hold a candle to Chester Peake, and Delmarva people were furious about that foreign beer replacing their National. Overnight, Carling turned a valuable trademark into nothing. All they were left with from the acquisition was a plant outside Baltimore, a fleet of trucks, and a product called Colt 45 Malt Liquor, which is marketed to people who want to get very drunk on beer very fast for very little money.
A few years ago, a European company bought Miller beer. Nobody knew or cared because Miller is still Miller. Nothing changed. It’s doubtful that intelligent Belgians would blow it like Carling did. Which is too bad in one way. Belgian beer is tastier than Bud, which is why most Americans won’t like it. And they’ll never swallow their national pride long enough to give it a try.